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Recreation vs. Re-creation

GG has from time to time wandered on a bit about some of the contradictions surrounding public lands (as a geoscientist, GG has spent a fair bit of time on said lands). So three articles in the latest issue of High Country News (their “Outdoors and travel special issue”) caught his eye as they threw light on three different aspects of our varying and changing views of wild lands. In a sense, all three pieces reflect views that would probably have distressed John Muir and other 19th century celebrators of the wild.

The first (and cover) story documents the growing disconnect between realities: that on the ground, and those developed in social media. The story recounts the five 2017 deaths on Capitol Peak in the Colorado Rockies, focusing on one in particular where the temptation from social media wore down any resistance to doing something very risky. In a real sense, this documents the continuing replacement of wilderness as a place for reflection and understanding of our place in the big wide world with a handy backdrop for our social media musings. This has made the great outdoors nothing more than a different edgy stage for our narcissistic self-promotion (“Look at what I did!”). Unfortunately the real world has taken little notice, and so bad injuries and deaths can pile up as the temptation of one-upmanship continues.  Although the piece lays the blame on our obsession with social media, it is worth pointing out that this has gone on far longer.  Once cell phones started getting signals in wilderness areas, people would just assume they could march out and get into any fix they liked and they would be rescued.

The second deals with another aspect of the wilderness as personal gym mentality, suggesting that outdoor equipment companies might not have the best interests of the land in mind when they advocate for preserving landscapes.  In particular, the author, Ethan Linck, points out that these companies are far more interested in saving places with dramatic and photogenic places than ecologically more valuable lands. He buttresses this with some insights from research showing that outdoor recreating is only weakly related to broader environmental concerns. Thus people who recreate outdoors can be passionate about preserving access to the lands they use but are far less likely to care about other places and other threats. The author goes on to note how older distinctions between consumptive and appreciative uses of wild lands are increasingly confused. The result is something of a fraying of the coalitions that advocated for Wilderness Areas over the past 50 years; deferring to corporations to take up the slack might not be the best way to preserve what should be preserved. At the same time, the way companies glorify wild lands in advertisements acts in a way similar to social media trivialization of these places.

The last is more of a current news item: legislation in Congress would remove restrictions on bikes in Wilderness Areas (along with motorized wheelchairs and a few other wheeled vehicles). This bill splinters the mountain biking community: the Sustainable Trails Coalition supports the bill while the International Mountain Biking Association opposes it. This is again moving to further trivialize the wild, to say it is really only useful as a free gym.  While there are legitimate complaints from the biking community about how some Wilderness areas are drawn, there are some good reasons for excluding bikes from Wilderness.

All three stories point to nature becoming little more than a scenic backdrop for feats of derring-do, for getting pumped up, for setting records and personal bests.  And if that is all we want, that is all we’ll save, and we’ll lose a lot more than we’ll know.

(Updated on 5/15 with links to the HCN stories now online)

Just Hear “No”

Every now and then the amusing politics of Boulder provides a real reflection of problems at a broader scale. And while the continued principled posturing can get a geophysicist grumpy, there is a lesson in here somewhere.

Boulder, you see, has purchased a lot of open space land. It makes the town a wonderful place to live, but somebody has to set the rules on this land.  Sitting as we do at the base of the Rocky Mountains, at an ecotone between the plains and the mountains, there is real ecological value to much of this land. A considerable amount of the conserved land is agricultural and has been for about 150 years. A fit and outdoorsy population over a quarter million strong in the county wants to recreate on these lands. Balancing these demands is not easy.

What we see are special interest groups that coalesce around specific aspects of open space management.  Mind, all agree that open space is good, but they are fierce adversaries in how the land is used. Dog lovers have a group dedicated to making as many trails as possible open to dog use. Mountain bikers have their own lobbying group dedicated to opening as many trails as possible to bikes. Climbers too will weigh in for access to their special sites. Conservationists lobby to preserve as broad an ecology as possible. Prairie dog advocates seek ever more ground for prairie dogs while agricultural tenants demand their removal.

Three things stand out.  One, obviously nobody will win everything. And two, all these groups feel put-upon. Thus three, the folks making and enforcing the rules are pretty much vilified from all sides.

The funny thing is that most folks in Boulder are in many–or even all–camps. Riding a mountain bike, walking a dog, admiring the wildlife–lots of Boulderites do all of these things. So we aren’t even talking about shades of gray–we are talking about tints of brown from mixing all these paints together just a bit differently. And yet the advocacy groups often use exaggerated language and promises of the end of all that is good on open space if trail XX is not opened or closed to some use. At times it is like watching a bunch of 2 year olds fight over a toy.

So here is where we need to recall a lesson we should have gotten as children: play nice and we all will enjoy our time together; play selfish and nobody has fun. The strategy of exaggeration and vilification may seem effective in the short run, but it is corrosive in the long run. It leads to dog haters putting out poisoned bait, the dog lovers letting Rover roam where sensitive nesting grounds are, to mountains bikers cutting illegal trails in the foothills–all of which have happened here in Boulder. It is time to accept that when society says “no” it means “no.” You don’t make the rules on your own; you have to engage the body public. And this means you need to accept compromise–you have to respect the “no” you disagree with.

The good news from Boulder is that compromise happens.  While every group can lament a loss, they can also tout a gain. Sometimes the compromises are more clever than you might anticipate: a trail that is open to bikes some days and not others. Or a place where dogs can be walked on leash but not to roam free. Sometimes they can be surprisingly strict: there are areas where you are not allowed to walk at all. But they might be balanced by other areas where you and your bike and your dog can prance about at will.

The key to successful compromise is accepting the things you cannot do.  Fail in that and you are no longer credible as a negotiating partner.  And this is the risk of all who promote absolutism in the pursuit of their goals (and it is easy to think of national examples of the same). If you can’t accept “no” for an answer, don’t expect anybody to want to play with you–or let you play on our land.

Wilderness Learning, Conclusion

Long ago I argued that legislating Wilderness represented a coalition of interests wanting lands to remain undeveloped along with a self-deception of how little humans had affected those lands. From the scientific side, capital-W Wilderness needs some serious rethinking.  The ecological fantasy of wilderness I’ve discussed a few times cannot be the rational basis for setting lands aside. In this set of posts, I’ve looked at this from a far more personal angle, one perhaps more congruent with the real motivations of the Wilderness Act: what is it about wilderness that we–human beings–really care about? Why is the illusion of untamed nature so alluring? For wilderness, both with and without the capital W, is a human construct (indeed, it is mainly a Western concept if not almost uniquely American). Without understanding what sets wilderness apart from other experiences from a human perspective, we can’t really have a good discussion about what should and shouldn’t be in Wilderness. While my experiences are unusual if not unique, I think the lessons that can be drawn from them might be more general.

I would first exclude as a justification for Wilderness a very common use of Wilderness: that of outdoor gym. A place to set a personal best in running a trail or climbing a peak doesn’t need to be Wilderness. Maybe Wilderness can accommodate that (to some degree: I think we’d all agree that running a race the size of the Boston Marathon through Wilderness would be a disaster), but that isn’t the experience that defines wilderness.

Oddly enough, I’m not sure that communing with nature makes the cut either.  Despite coal-fired railroad engines belching past the far side of Walden Pond, Thoreau could commune with nature well enough to inspire generations following him. Similarly, although Wilderness unquestionably acts as a valuable reservoir of natural genomes, we don’t select it for that, and other undeveloped lands and even some developed lands can provide that service, too.

I tend to object to postage stamp size Wilderness areas. Unless surrounded by unroaded areas or utterly lacking in trails and access, civilization is just too handy.  While protecting such lands often has real value, the label should probably be different.  “Natural Area,” “Wildlife Preserve,” or even “Scenic Reserve” might be more appropriate.

When I look back at my experiences, it is the isolation from ready rescue, from easy extraction and convenient resupply that separates wilderness from tamer lands. It is the immersion in that experience as well. Your nose is rubbed in your mistakes–you can die, in fact–and similarly your successes in extricating yourself belong to you and not the auto club or the 7-11 down the street. Your clever trick in hanging food from bears, or making a campfire with a single match, or setting up a tent in a pouring rain without getting the inside wet–these are minor accomplishments, true, but they are often personal successes unsullied by advice from the broader world. We all are cheered by our little victories.

There are places on the earth where similar experiences can be had with motorized transport (people die driving off into the deserts of North Africa and Australia, for instance), but those require huge expanses of unoccupied land. To have the same effect in the U.S., you need to be able to go far enough that you can’t trivially retreat or yell for rescue. The easier transport allowed in, the tougher it is to meet this demand.  This is, to my mind, the firmest argument against bicycles in the Wilderness: it makes the remote less remote. Remote too is a signal characteristic of wilderness.  I think this is also a good argument for not providing cell service in wilderness; we are increasingly reliant on quick Google searches or Wikipedia pages for knowledge, knowledge that evaporates the moment after we encounter it.  Wilderness is to deeply understand things. Satellite rescue beacons are fine, I suppose: they are confessions of failure or encounters with profound misfortune, often in dire circumstance [when used outside of dire circumstance, as has happened, it is a confession of a different kind of failure]. It is the substitution of the global hive mind for individual problem-wrestling that I resist. We’ve shown that if we can access that hive mind through the internet, we will do that before switching on our own white matter. Wilderness, to me, is a place where you learn what you are capable of. It is certainly not the only such place, but it has its own special circumstance.

Undiluted, consequential self-reliance lasting a decent duration might be the essence of the human experience in wilderness. I don’t mean that you walk naked into the wild and try to survive (though some might choose that option). I mean your problems are your own.  Immersion in that environment heightens recognition of that responsibility, which in turn helps to enhance your perception of your surroundings.  When we first camped and feared bears, the crinkle of the tube tents brought our attention to what we could hear, and see, and smell.

You never know the challenges you might face.  When we removed our seismometers in the autumn of 1988 from the Kern backcountry, two of us hiked in and packed everything and placed the boxes by the trail garlanded with neon orange flagging. Half Pint was chosen to take a pack string in and get everything out (and he was given pretty clear instructions on where that cabin up the Big Arroyo was). He managed to visit all six sites and get the gear on his mules.  But when the return trail started rising up from the Little Kern River, he got bucked off his horse. But he held on to his mule string, and while the horse taunted him by staying just out of reach, HP had to walk along, leading his mules. Nothing pains a cowboy more than walking after being unhorsed, but getting the gear back was his responsibility; his challenge that day, that only he could meet, was to keep hold of the mules and plod up to the pack station, following his horse. I rather suspect HP picked up a few lessons that summer.

Any of you who have read this probably have your own views. Everybody probably takes something different from their wilderness experiences. Just ask, as I have tried to in these posts, what was it about wilderness that was different from what you experience outside wilderness, in particular what specifically makes the difference worth elevating those lands above others. If you can do that, boil that insight down to its essence, and then use it as a guide for what should and should not be Wilderness, then at least any subsequent conflicts over Wilderness will at least be over essentials and not perceptions or proxies. And if, somehow, you have not been in wilderness for any length of time, I hope this helps explain why many who have been there want to keep it–even understanding that it is fantasy that these lands are untouched by humanity.

Previous entries: Lesson 1, Lesson 2aLesson 2b, Lesson 3Lesson 4.

Wilderness Learning, Part 5

Lesson 4: There is always more to learn

While my influence on friends of a friend through my travels was unexpected, the one place we do look to be a guiding light is with our children. Having learned our lessons before parenthood, we hope to be that beacon of wisdom that can infuse our children with knowledge without the necessity of living through the same mistakes we made. While we all discover that our abilities in this vein are limited, it is usually because we aren’t heard or heeded. Even so, I don’t think things necessarily worked out the way I had planned when my younger daughter joined me for a llama-pack on the John Muir Trail…

I’ve spent months living in the backcountry, and while there are those who have had to deal with more severe situations (animal attack, major injury and the like), and there are those who’ve spent a lot more time in wilderness (rangers, packers, trail crews, some guidebook authors and some really serious aficionados), I’ve felt like after all that time and all those mistakes that I have reached a place where I am about as comfortable in the wilderness (well, at least the pretty dry wildernesses of the southwest) as anybody. And so on this trip I could show my youngest just how it is done.

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Wilderness Learning, Part 4

Lesson 3: Connections

As both a scientist and educator, you hope to have an impact that ripples through a broader population.  Your scientific insights help others to make new discoveries, your teaching to help students to improve their lives and that of others they in turn impact. Most of the time, you really don’t know how successful you’ve been. Science can lumber off in the wrong direction while you might have been on the right path (or, of course, vice versa). Former students might never be in touch, or worse, might tell you you failed (yes, I had this happen.  Encountering a fellow working at a science museum, I learned he had taken my intro historical geology class.  “Has that helped you in your job here?” I asked. The response was quick and blunt: “No.”).

I would never have thought that I might have affected others in any serious way through my pursuit of backpacking. And I would not have guessed I would have learned of such an impact through a murder. And yet, that is my tale to tell…

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Wilderness Learning, Part 3

Lesson 2: Perseverance (part 2)

Well, after getting in position in the backcountry to do seismology and well on the way to recovering from the setbacks of losing helpers and the blocked trail, we now got to start doing what we had come here for: deploying these bulky old seismometers.

We decided that bedrock on the valley wall would be our best choice for this first station [we missed a much easier exposure of bedrock just north of the ranger station area]; this meant we pulled out our packframes, lashed the gear to the frames, and struggled up the scree at the base of the west wall of the canyon.


Tom unpacking an LBS recorder

For the most part, things went reasonably well.  We found a nice spot to dig in our seismometer (an L4-3D if you are wondering), the seismograph unpacked OK and would run. But then we finally ran up against a serious problem.  We had to figure out what the time on the seismograph was.  It had to be within about a hundredth of a second, or all our effort would be wasted as the experiment (seismic tomography) required accurate times.

[As a reminder, the seismometer is the instrument that actually detects and amplifies ground motion, in this case varying voltage in wires that go to the seismograph, which further amplifies the signal and records it, in this case on the reel-to-reel tapes.]

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Wilderness Learning, Part 2

Lesson 2: Perseverance (part 1)

While many who enter the backcountry get to learn the need for self-reliance and preparation, far fewer get the opportunity to reach deeper. On a recreational trip, if things aren’t going well, you do as we did on my first backpack and turn around. Even Wild‘s Cheryl Strayed bailed on the super snowy Sierra. Of course some on a goal-oriented trip will persevere, but failure is an option. If a route up a peak is too hard, or conditions are too bad, there is always another day.

For others, the wilderness is their workplace. All the kinds of failures and successes we might have in our comfort-controlled offices with the support of colleagues and friends, they must create on their own with very limited contact from the outside world.  Think wilderness rangers, trail crew members, horse packers.

My experiences were on the edge of all these. Most of the research scientists who work in wilderness are bioscience folks looking for ecosystems relatively untainted by human activity.  Solid earth researchers are present too, though mainly geologists whose field areas happen to lie in wilderness. Most of these people don’t rely on much in the way of equipment. A geologist might have a rock hammer, a Brunton pocket transit, a field notebook and map (or, these days, perhaps a tablet and GPS unit). My work required several hundred pounds of equipment making it to remote places and functioning for months on end. So while I shared in the absence of contact with a broader community, the reliability and portability of my equipment exaggerated the issues a scientist faces in the wild.

While none of this compares with truly life-threatening emergencies, when things go wrong, you are stuck with the resources you have. Just how you deal with those reverses is the challenge wilderness places before you.

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